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Atlas Shrugged At 50
Ayn Rand's magnum opus.
October 11, 2007 -- Two important events occurred in October 1957. First, the Soviet Union launched into orbit the first artificial satellite, named Sputnik, causing many to speculate that the West was losing to the superior technology and, possibly, inevitable ideology of communism. Second, the novel Atlas Shrugged was published. Its author, Ayn Rand, had fled the tyranny of Soviet communism in 1926 for freedom in the West.
Ayn Rand's ideas, which provided an effective counter to Marxist collectivism, are needed even more today to provide the philosophical basis for a culture of principled individualism.
Ayn Rand's life was as heroic as her characters. She came to America not speaking English but mastered the language to achieve her goal of becoming a writer. In the following decades, she wrote plays, scripts for Hollywood movies, and her first two great novels.
In We the Living, published in 1936, Ayn Rand offered a damning indictment of communism. The book stood in stark contrast to the self-blinded romance that the political left and Tinsel Town had with the 1930s evil-of-the-day: Josef Stalin's concentration-camp-of-a-country. Nothing much has changed.
In her 1943 best-seller The Fountainhead, which was made into a major Hollywood movie, Ayn Rand showed the soul of a true individualist, architect Howard Roark, who held to his own ideas and ideals, in contrast to those who surrender their dreams simply for the empty approval of others. When one acquaintance asserted it was Ayn Rand's duty to expound upon the ideas in that book, she provocatively asked what would happen if she went on strike, if she refused to serve others. That was the spark that ignited Atlas Shrugged.
In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand presented her ideas in a story, not in a philosophical treatise. We confront a mystery: Industrial America is collapsing and the most competent and productive individuals who can save the world seem to be disappearing. When Ayn Rand was writing—and this is still true—it was safe for novelists, media, moviemakers, politicians, and preachers to bash businessmen.
But in Atlas Shrugged, the heroes are in business. Ayn Rand shows us characters like railroad vice president Dagny Taggart and super-steel producer Hank Rearden who love their work; who create innovative products and services by exercising their reason, honesty, integrity, and independence; who trade their products with voluntary customers; who become rich through their own efforts; and who take pride in their profits and achievements. She contrasts these heroes with pseudo-businessmen, looters who are more interested in appearance than products; who use government to extort wealth from others; and who are guilty and ashamed of their prosperity.
Atlas Shrugged is an exciting story of the consequences of such suicidal ethics and, even more importantly, an outline of a true ethics of life.
Ayn Rand's revolution in Atlas Shrugged was to define the standard of all value as man's life; the means of our survival as the exercise of our rational minds, not our adrenal glands; and our proper individual goals as our own lives, joy, and happiness.
Ayn Rand taught that it is because we must be free to think and act in order to survive and flourish that we should deal with one another based on mutual consent and never through the initiation of force—such a social system is called capitalism. And for these reasons, governments should be limited to protecting the rights of individuals to life, liberty, and property.
Today, "postmodernists" claim that there are no standards, no right or wrong, and that everything is a matter of opinion and interpretation—except their own bizarre theories and leftist agendas. We see the results of that nonsense around us every day. But the antidote is not a moral code based on religions or traditions that are often arbitrary, contradict one other, and set individuals at each others' throats.
What is needed is an unapologetic defense of rational, responsible, and principled individualism, as is found in Atlas Shrugged.
We should each pursue the goals we love, whether nurturing a child to maturity or a business to profitability; whether writing a song, a poem, or a business plan; whether laying the bricks to a building, designing the building, or arranging its financing. The result would be a society in which we are each enriched, entertained, educated, enlightened, and inspired by our fellows. That is the visionAyn Rand offers, the vision of a true Atlas society.
Edward Hudgins writes on political and social issues. He is the editor of Freedom to Trade: Refuting the New Protectionism, Space: The Free Market Frontier, and two books on postal service privatization. His latest collection is entitled An Objectivist Secular Reader. He is director of advocacy for The Atlas Society.